To fully understand how rookie first-rounder Nate Solder will fit into the 2011 equation for the Patriots, one must first understand the complexity of the current depth chart.
Short Term Projection:
Sebastian Vollmer appears to be the only tackle on the roster who could claim to have a guaranteed role next year. Vollmer has experience at left tackle, making multiple starts at the position during his rookie season in place of Matt Light.
He was a Pro Bowl selection last year after starting all 16 games at right tackle, and it'd make a whole heck of a lot of sense to keep him there in 2011 and I feel quite comfortable penciling him in.
With that said, the question turns to figuring out who starts on the left side.
Matt Light is without a contract for the 2011 season at this stage, and the team has made no mention of re-signing the 32-year-old once the transaction freeze gets lifted.
Light has made critical comments about Patriots owner Robert Kraft during the offseason, and has also struggled in recent years against many premier pass rushers off the edge.
Nick Kaczur reportedly refused to restructure his contract when approached by the team. He's on the books for $3.4 million next season, and the team isn't likely to dish that type of cash out for a backup.
Kaczur will likely be released, leaving Solder as the only reasonable option at left tackle still on the roster.
Further,Bill Belichick has gone on record stating Solder was drafted to be a left tackle.
"I think he'll be able to contribute for us and we'll work him at left tackle," said the head coach.
"He's played left tackle and I think that will be his position in the National Football League. His position is the one he's been playing, but it's still obviously a different level of play and his techniques and there are a lot of things that he'll have to improve on."
Barring a free-agent signing, expect to see the freshly groomed Solder starting at left tackle for the Patriots this season. Offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia has some work to do, but he also has "a smart guy, a hard-working kid," in the words of Belichick.
"He's already graduated, he's a good worker, so hopefully he'll take the coaching that he gets from our staff and Dante (Scarnecchia) and be able to improve and develop at a position that he has some experience at."
The long-term hope with Solder is that he can develop into a franchise left tackle, and truly become Brady's protector on the blind side.
Solder is listed at 6'8" and 319 lbs, and he'll be paired with the another beast at the tackle position. At 6'8" and 315 lbs, the young Vollmer is no pushover either. In the span of three years, the Patriots have reworked two of the most important positions on the line.
Having the two tackle positions securely filled allows the team to begin preparing for life without center Dan Koppen. The 31-year-old has been a staple of the line since 2003, and while he unquestionably has some time left the clock is ticking. He's missed a total of eight games in his entire career and has been described by Belichick as one of the best linemen he's ever coached.
I'd project the team to look into finding his replacement within the next two seasons via the draft.
The guard position is one of uncertainty, but has been marked by impressive depth over the years. The Logan Mankins contract situation is far from settled, but one would think and hope he wouldn't be willing to sit out yet another season in protest.
Mankins has been slapped with the franchise tag, and is in line to make $10.1 million in 2011 after making $1.54 million in 2010. Robert Kraft has vocally stated on multiple occasions that it remains the goal of the team to lock Mankins up long term.
Everyone's favorite special teams kick returner Dan Connolly projects to be the starting right guard in 2011, with rookie Marcus Cannon likely taking a year off to receive cancer treatment.
From left to right the line looks strong, young, and full of potential. There's been quite a bit of turnover and this new look line should be primed and ready to chase another string of championships.
Projected 2011 Lineup:
Left Tackle: Nate Solder
Left Guard: Logan Mankins
Center: Dan Koppen
Right Guard: Dan Connolly
Right Tackle: Sebastian Vollmer
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